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Voluntourism: The benefits and pitfalls you need to know

By Julie Clothier for CNN
Christopher Hill, founder and managing director of Hands Up Holidays, teaching English to the Hmong community in Sapa, Vietnam.
Christopher Hill, founder and managing director of Hands Up Holidays, teaching English to the Hmong community in Sapa, Vietnam.
  • Two industry experts go head-to-head debating the pros and cons of voluntourism
  • Christopher Hill of Hands Up Holidays: Many voluntourists are inspired to become long-term volunteers
  • Mark Jacobs of NGO, Azafady: Small organizations doing good are overlooked due to lack of marketing budgets
  • Jacobs calls for a regulatory body to "keep the industry honest"

(CNN) -- Two members of the voluntourism or volunteer holiday industry go head-to-head over the oft-debated benefits and pitfalls of a holiday choice that continues to grow in popularity.

Christopher Hill is the founder and managing director of Hands Up Holidays, a UK-based eco-luxury voluntourism travel company that organizes tailor-made vacations that typically have a 25 to 30 percent volunteering component. Here, he argues why the growing voluntourism industry is so good for the world.

A huge proportion of people who experience volunteering while on vacation are inspired to volunteer long-term, passionate advocates or donors for their own community.

This is a huge benefit of the booming voluntourism industry, one that is so often overlooked.

A voluntourism experience offers a bit of volunteering within a normal holiday, and that's why there is a cost involved -- because people are paying for a holiday, but there is also a donation to a project involved too.

The industry is growing because more and more people are seeking meaning, fulfillment and a sense of purpose in life. If this is not met in their careers and daily lives, volunteering whilst traveling is a powerful way to meet this desire.

It is important to remember voluntourism and aid work are two distinct markets, appealing to two completely different groups.

Aid programs perform an essential role, but people involved with it are long-term participants, volunteers or otherwise. Voluntourism is for people who are going on vacation who do not have the time to be involved with traditional aid programs.

Benefits of voluntourism to the host communities depend on the skills of the volunteer. For example, doctors provide a specific need within a community while volunteers can help build libraries, schools or houses that the community could not otherwise afford.

There also need to be benefits to the individual to ensure they have a well-rounded travel experience. A responsible voluntourism provider needs to identify the best available accommodation, which has strong environmental and social responsibility credentials and guides who are trained in responsible travel principles.

Voluntourists should look for an organization that consults with the local community, and assurance that the needs of the project has been sourced by the community rather than imposed on it externally.

Their skills should be matched to a project and be put in touch with previous clients who have volunteered there before. Voluntourism can and does make a huge difference.

For example, five years after Hurricane Katrina, New Orleans is a growing destination for people who want to help out in a variety of areas: environmental conservation, wildlife preservation, and assisting people affected by this calamity.

It's almost impossible for the discerning volunteer to figure out which volunteering organizations are actually doing good work and which are not.
--Mark Jacobs, Managing Director of Azafady.
  • Tourism
  • Volunteering
  • Vacations
  • Madagascar

There is still much to be done to help renovate houses damaged by that storm or help with skills training of long-term unemployed. This is an excellent example of all the good things voluntourism can do.

Mark Jacobs is the managing director of Azafady, a small London-based charity working in the south-east of the African island of Madagascar on sustainable development, community and conservation projects with volunteering placements. Here, Jacobs talks about what's wrong with the ever-growing voluntourism industry.

If you're volunteering with our organization, you'll be required to fund raise a direct charitable donation, not pay a fee to a profit-making company. The communities we work with have requested all of the projects we work on.

The projects are ongoing, so that even if you are on our two-week placements -- which are our shortest -- you will leave knowing that you have made a real contribution and the benefits of your work will continue long into the future.

But it's almost impossible for the discerning volunteer to figure out which volunteering organizations are doing good work and which are not.

They can cost a fortune, but local communities see little of the benefits -- and all volunteers are left with is a dose of cynicism. It's a minefield out there.

The small organizations genuinely doing good on the ground are overlooked because they can't afford to engage in mass marketing.

Most volunteers who work with us find us, rather than the other way around. And it's not easy for them to find us -- there's so much "noise" out there in the form of big travel companies charging exorbitant amounts for volunteering holidays set up with only profit and entertainment in mind.

The profits involved have meant massive expansion in the industry. The basis of my cynicism is that many organizations produce little good and can even lead to skilled, well-motivated people turning away from international charity work altogether.

We have just three staff in the UK, keeping most paid positions for local staff in Madagascar. We are proud that 90 percent of our income is spent on our charitable aims.

In the past five years, with volunteers' support, Azafady has managed to build 11 schools, plant 200,000 trees, and increase access to clean drinking water by 50 percent in our main area of activity.

We don't spend large amounts of money on marketing or PR, but this means that we struggle to compete with big organizations that spend a fortune on glossy advertising. We often don't fill the capacity we have to take volunteers on our projects.

A lot of big travel companies now create volunteering opportunities, but it just doesn't fit with what's really needed overseas.

There are key questions that individuals need to ask these organizations before they choose a volunteering project: Are the projects needed? Are you a charity or a profit-making company? Can I see a copy of your accounts to see where the money actually goes?

There needs to be a regulatory body that assesses the validity of different organizations and keeps the industry honest.

But the large travel organizations that dominate the industry are powerful and going to be dead against the idea of a regulatory body because it will make them look as ridiculous as they are behind the gloss.

But that's what is needed -- easy access to information so individuals know their time and money will be put to good use.